In a recent Murder case coming before the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, the defendant asked for a new trial because the trial court judge had closed the courtroom during the middle of his eight-day jury trial. Under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, defendants are entitled to public trials, and according to the defendant, the trial court deprived him of this fundamental right to a public trial. Looking at the evidence in the record, the higher court agreed with the defendant and ended up granting him a new trial.
Facts of the Case
According to the opinion, the defendant was criminally charged with second-degree murder. His case went to trial, and the State asked the judge to close the courtroom a few days into the eight-day trial. During a conversation between the attorneys and the judge, the judge noted that several individuals in the courtroom had been “very intimidating,” had inappropriately taken photos during the proceedings, and had posted these photos on social media.
The defendant’s attorney asked if the court would consider banning cell phones instead of excluding the public from the trial, but the judge decided to proceed with closing the courtroom. The defendant’s trial proceeded in private, and the jury later found him guilty as charged. The defendant was then sentenced accordingly.
On appeal, the defendant asserted that his Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated when the trial judge closed the courtroom in the middle of the proceedings. Looking at the court record, the Court of Appeals agreed. It is true, said the court, that a trial judge is entitled to close the courtroom for a hearing if exceptional circumstances exist. Here, however, the trial judge did not explain his decision, explore any viable alternatives, or create a clear record to indicate why he chose to take such a drastic measure. Generally, when the Court considers closing a Courtroom which is a drastic measure that deprives the defendant of a fundamental constitutional right, the Court should hold an evidentiary hearing called a Hinton hearing. At such a hearing, witnesses who felt intimidated by the spectators could have testified and the Judge would have needed to explain that there was no alternative but to close the Courtroom. None of that happened in this case.
Because there was not enough evidence on the record regarding the closing of the courtroom, the higher court concluded that the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right was, in fact, violated. The right to a public trial is crucial, said the court, and the defendant should receive an entirely new trial in order to compensate for this loss.
Thus, the court vacated the guilty conviction, remanded the proceedings, and directed the lower court to reschedule the trial in the defendant’s case.
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